NYCB ballet master Craig Hall with Peck onstage. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB.

Meet "The Pecking Order," Justin Peck's Young Team of Répétiteurs

How does Justin Peck do it all? The Tony-award-winning resident choreographer at New York City Ballet is still performing as a company soloist. Yet he somehow manages to have his work performed by companies all over the world.

Like most busy choreographers, he has répétiteurs who stage his work. When Peck started choreographing for NYCB, Albert Evans was the ballet master at his side, but he passed away unexpectedly in 2015. The sudden, tragic loss, combined with his rapid success, meant Peck had to quickly find a group of trustworthy stagers. He turned to dancers he'd worked with, all in their late 20s or early 30s, who had no experience staging ballets.

The opportunities Peck had to offer changed their career trajectories, and gave them a chance to be part of the legacy he's building. "I feel like, how did this happen to me?" says Patricia Delgado who stages Peck's work, and who is also his fiancé. "I grew up idolizing Balanchine and Robbins, but I knew when I passed it on, I'd have to say I learned it from so-and-so. I feel lucky now to be able to pass on work born in my generation."

We caught up with four of Peck's busiest "right hands."

Zoe Zien

Zien and Peck during rehearsals for "Carousel." Photo courtesy Zien.

When Zoe Zien decided to leave Miami City Ballet after 13 seasons in the corps, she wasn't sure what was next—she just knew it was time for a change. "My plan was to move back home to New York City and figure it out," she says.

At a party celebrating her last performance, Peck approached her and asked if she'd be interested in staging Year of the Rabbit for Houston Ballet (she had danced the pas de deux at MCB, among other Peck ballets), and if she would serve as associate choreographer for the Broadway production of Carousel.

"It changed my life, especially Carousel," Zien says.

She's spent almost a year and a half working on Carousel, from the pre-production labs to the current run. She says her experience in Houston being on the other side of the studio was exciting, but Carousel offered a more in-depth, creative experience. "I started with note taking and making sure dancers were getting what Justin wanted, but it evolved to where I was someone he would bounce ideas off of, and I'd give input," she says. "There were a whirlwind of creative changes in the run up to the premiere. I worked with the director and the whole creative team, the business side too. It was a thrill to experience."

It made her rethink what creative possibilities she wants to pursue. "I have the desire to create," says Zien, who grew up watching her father act on Broadway. "Theater, storytelling, directing, choreographing, the whole package is interesting to me. Carousel sparked something."

Christian Tworzyanski

Tworzyanski (kneeling on the ground) with Peck in rehearsal. Photo courtesy Tworzyanski.

After 11 years at NYCB as a corps member, Christian Tworzyanski made a bold move: He left familiarity behind for a company with completely different repertory in a new country, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in Monaco.

He was just getting settled when Peck reached out about staging In Creases, a ballet that featured Tworzyanski in its original cast of eight dancers. (Monte Carlo director Jean-Christophe Maillot supported his taking time away to stage Peck's work, because Maillot relies on répétiteurs to stage his own choreography, Tworzyanksi says.)

His first assignment: Paris Opéra Ballet. "It was intimidating. I had never staged anything before," says Tworzyanksi. "But I told myself, 'You have a job to do.'"

He spent time with the video learning roles of the other dancers, but also dug deeper. "I asked Justin the thoughts and meaning behind the steps," says Tworzyanski, who shared a dressing room with Peck at NYCB. "I was nervous for him to see what I had done in Paris. I wanted it to be true to his vision."

Peck was pleased. Since then he has asked Tworzyanski to stage the work at Ballet Austin, The Washington Ballet and BalletMet. Tworzyanski also took on another ballet with a much bigger cast, Paz de la Jolla, staging it for National Ballet of Canada, and coming up next season, Bordeaux Opéra Ballet in France.

Staging Peck's work pushed Tworzyanski to get comfortable in the front of the room. During his time at Ballet Austin, he asked a longtime friend in the cast what he could do better as a stager. "She told me to be more confident, that I can tell people what they need to hear. I'm in charge," he says.

This year, he'll take a major vote of self-confidence by leaving Monte Carlo to freelance. He plans to stage Peck's work, perform and teach. "I've grown so much professionally and artistically, but I want to expand even more," he says.

Craig Hall

Hall with NYCB dancers Brittany Pollack and Emilie Gerrity. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy NYCB.

When Craig Hall pictured his life after performing, it didn't include ballet. "I thought I'd become a photographer," Hall says. "I never thought about staging work."

The former NYCB soloist says that he used to tease the younger Peck when he first joined the company. But he soon realized Peck was a talented partner and started coaching him. "Justin told me he liked my approach to explaining things to dancers, that I broke things down in a way that made them get it," Hall says.

After Evans passed away, Peck needed a new in-house ballet master at NYCB. He asked Hall if he'd stage Year of the Rabbit at Miami City Ballet with fellow dancer Janie Taylor.

"I worried, if I'm not dancing, will it be as exciting or creative?" Hall says. "But it was almost more creative, because I was like a puzzle master, putting all the pieces into place, not just my own role. Plus working on the lighting, costumes and the orchestra, it was exhilarating."

Shortly after that, Hall retired from the stage and became a full-time ballet master for NYCB working on Peck's ballets. When ballet master in chief Peter Martins abruptly resigned in January of this year, Hall was appointed one of four interim company directors. "I learn new skills every day," Hall says. "To see what it takes to make the machine of a ballet company run, it's amazing, and it all started with me saying 'yes' to Justin."

Patricia Delgado

Delgado (far left) and Peck at Boston Ballet with ballet mistress Shannon Parsley. Photo by Sabi Varga @ Varga Images, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

Miami City Ballet has many revered principal dancers, but the Delgado sisters, Patricia and Jeanette, hold a special place there as homegrown talents. They were born in Miami and trained at the company's school. So it was a surprise when Patricia announced she was leaving the company last year without specific plans.

But the unknown was part of the plan. Sporadic work with Peck in the years before her MCB retirement opened new possibilities for her, and she wanted to explore them. (It also opened possibilities in her personal life: Delgado and Peck started dating when he first came to Miami in 2014, and they now live together in NYC.)

Delgado had first worked with Peck at Nantucket Dancing Festival during a layoff from MCB. The gig was alongside NYCB dancers, which she says pushed her out of her comfort zone. Then, with little notice, she quickly learned the pas de deux from Year of the Rabbit, and performed it in Moscow at the Benois de la Danse awards.

"I was hungry for more," she says. "Down in Miami, we didn't have too much new work created on us. I did a lot of Balanchine and I loved it, but it didn't feel innate. Working with Justin felt like home."

She left MCB with just one gig booked—staging In Creases at Boston Ballet, an experience she calls the "highlight" of her career. "I was bitten by the répétiteur bug," she says. "Staging the work is like sharing happiness, seeing them master it. After the third cast ran it for the first time—and they hadn't gotten to rehearse much—I cried at seeing it come together."

She staged Heatscape with her sister at Dresden Semperoper Ballet later that year, a piece they were both in the original cast of at MCB. She's also still performing, including in works by Peck.

Delgado says she feels a bit like a psychologist when she's staging ballets. "Seeing how people process work, are they getting in their own way? Are there social challenges? You learn a lot about people in the front of the room," she says.

Delgado will assist the latest recruit to Peck's crew, former Miami City Ballet dancer Michael Sean Breeden, with In Creases at Ballet Arizona next month. "I'm excited for him," she says. "I feel like a changed person from a year ago."

Hall has dubbed Peck's répétiteurs "The Pecking Order," and Delgado calls them "RePecktiteurs." Whatever their name, as the demand for his work rises, Peck will surely change the lives of many more.

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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Students of International City School of Ballet in Marietta, Georgia. Karl Hoffman Photography, Courtesy International City Ballet

A Ballet Student’s Guide to Researching Pre-Professional Training Programs

Many dancers have goals of taking their training to the next level by attending full-time pre-professional programs next fall. But it's hard to get to know the organizations without physically experiencing them first. Even when the world isn't practicing social distancing, visiting a school or attending its summer program isn't always possible. So, what can students and their families do to research programs and know what might work best for them? Who do you reach out to, and what are the questions you and your parents should be asking?

Here, pre-professional-program leaders share some practical advice for taking the next step in your dance training.

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American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

ABT’s Rachel Richardson on Performing With Her Hometown Company, Eugene Ballet

When I signed my first professional contract with Eugene Ballet, one of the last things I anticipated was the opportunity to dance beside a member of American Ballet Theatre. Flash forward to the start of our spring season this year, and suddenly I'm chatting in the hallway and rehearsing the Cinderella fairy variations next to luminous ABT corps member Rachel Richardson. When ABT announced it was canceling live performances for the 2020–21 season, Richardson traveled back home to Eugene, Oregon, to be with her family—and this spring joined the company as a guest artist.

Growing up, Richardson trained locally in Eugene before moving to The Rock School for Dance Education's year-round program in Philadelphia. After securing a spot in the ABT Studio Company in 2013, she was promoted to corps de ballet in 2015. This unconventional year marks her sixth season with the main company.

After having the privilege of dancing with her this spring, I sat down with Richardson to discuss her recent guesting experience, how the pandemic has helped her grow and her advice for young dancers.

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